Losing It All Just Because One Becomes Sick

You’ve got a chronic illness, should you go to the doctor or pay your mortgage? That is the question facing many in the United States. The Commonwealth Fund says that 41 percent of working-age adults are struggling with medical debts.

That is 72 million United States citizens.

When a medical crisis happens many families have to seek bankruptcy in order to stay above water. Yahoo’s Health Day reports:

“The way people get in trouble is they have substantial debt they’re managing, they’re paying mortgages and paying off credit card balances, but they’re managing. Then a shock occurs,” said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-author of a medical bankruptcy paper from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project. “In bankruptcy, in about half of those cases, that shock is a medical shock.”

“The shock often takes the form of higher bills. It can also take the form of higher bills and loss of work because you’re sick,” added Woolhandler, who is an advocate of national health insurance.

Those who have a chronic illness have the hardest time. With deductibles above what most families can afford many find they can quickly be swimming in credit card debt to cover their bills. When those debts mount up they are forced to declare bankruptcy.

Larry and Donna Smith are one such couple that fell through the cracks as they watched their deductable rise. They have six children and employer-sponsored health insurance. In the late 1990’s they started watching their co-pays and deductibles rising.

“While we were both well, we could absorb that creep,” said Donna, formerly a newspaper editor and now a community organizer for the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee in Chicago.

Donna got uterine cancer and Larry came down with artery disease. At that point paying medical bills became a juggling act that failed in the end. They were forced to ask family for money just to get by. That need damaged relationships and humiliated the family. At one point Donna had to hack her engagement ring.

In the end it was a $600 dermatologist bill that took them over the edge and into bankrupcy court. They had to sell their home. During all this chaos they were still insured.

The family is now renting in Chicago.

“I don’t know if we have enough working years left to buy a house,” Donna said. “That’s pretty heavy punishment for having gotten sick.”

They are not alone. In fact so many are riding the trials and tribulations of medical debt Mike Leavitt, head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated during a recent news conference:

“If we had any idea how many mortgages were foreclosed because people were crowded out by medical issues … Health-care costs are at the heart of many of the things happening.”

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